Has a Team Like the Royals Ever Made the Playoffs?

Late last night after dropping a second consecutive game to the Kansas City Royals, the Cleveland Indians’ playoff odds slipped to 0.0% for the first time this season. That means two things. For starters, the Cleveland Indians will not be making the playoffs. But also the Kansas City Royals, barring a complete collapse and miraculous run by the Seattle Mariners, will be making the playoffs.

The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, so that’s a pretty big deal. Congrats, Royals! You guys did it. Enjoy playoff baseball, you’ve earned it. That the Royals even made the playoffs is noteworthy in and of itself. What might be more noteworthy, though, is how this team got there.

A few things we know about the Royals

  • Just like last year, they fired their hitting coach at the end of May. At the time, they were last in the American League in OPS, home runs, slugging percentage and runs scored. Things have gotten a little better since then, but they’re still last in the MLB in home runs and are a bottom-10 offense overall.
  • Their defense has been amazing. Like, historically amazing. Alex Gordon is almost certain to win his fourth consecutive Gold Glove award in left field, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson are two of the best defenders in baseball in center field – and sometimes one of them gets moved to right – and Alcides Escobar is pretty slick at shortstop.
  • Going hand-in-hand with their elite defense is elite speed. Dyson and Escobar each have more than 30 steals, Cain has 27 and, as a team, the Royals have stolen more bases than any team in baseball.
  • They have arguably the most dominant bullpen in the MLB, led by the American League’s best closer in Greg Holland, the American League’s best set-up man in Wade Davis, and maybe the American League’s best “seventh inning guy” – whatever that means – in Kelvin Herrera.

So, in the Royals, you’ve got a team that runs well, plays excellent defense, has a dominant bullpen and is headed to the playoffs while hitting poorly and throwing out good-but-not-great starting pitching.

If you’re the type who, at the start of the season, likes to predict playoff teams and eventual World Series champions, where do you begin evaluating a team? Don’t lie. It’s their lineup and starting pitching. Speed, defense and a good bullpen are nice to round out a team with a strong lineup and good rotation, but that’s where it starts – with hitting and starting pitching. Rarely do you see playoff-caliber teams being led by the little things. Yet here we are in 2014, and the Royals are headed to the playoffs.

That got me wondering: Has a team constructed like the Royals ever made the playoffs? They’re soon to become the first team in MLB history to make the playoffs while finishing dead last in both home runs and walks, so by that measure the answer is no, but that’s not a very good answer. We can do better than that.

First, the limitations: We’ve only got complete defensive data dating back to 2003, so the “ever” in the title is actually more like “since 2003,” but this still gives us a pretty clear idea of what playoff teams look like and where the Royals fit in, historically.

What I’ve done is compiled the individual value components – batting, baserunning, fielding, starting pitching and relieving – of each playoff team since 2003. This gave me a sample of 102 teams. Then, I’ve calculated the percentage of each team’s value that came from just baserunning, fielding and the bullpen. What follows is an entirely sortable table of the top-10 playoff teams that have relied on “the little things,” and the bottom-10, with links to each team page in case you want to do some playing around. You’re going to see some wacky negative percentages, because we’re dealing with negative values, but it shouldn’t be too confusing.

Bat BsR Fld SP RP Total BsRFldBP%
’07 D-backs -141.7 9.2 -4.2 120.2 35.5 19.0 213%
’12 Braves
-56.1 7.4 67.8 96.7 53.1 168.9 76%
’04 Dodgers -21.7 0.2 57.9 61.3 50.0 147.7 73%
’07 Cubs -83.1 -7.3 57.1 121.6 53.0 141.3 73%
’08 Phillies -18.9 17.8 69.0 94.2 42.5 204.6 63%
’14 Royals* -46.6 10.2 62.3 120.9 49.6 196.4 62%
’06 Mets -6.7 16.0 25.2 73.3 60.2 168.0 60%
’11 D-backs -23.8 1.3 66.6 103.8 26.0 173.9 54%
’12 Reds -50.2 4.8 25.7 124.9 57.0 162.2 54%
’06 Padres -10.2 9.0 24.9 80.6 32.0 136.3 48%
’03 Athletics -40.7 6.6 -34.4 205.0 21.2 157.7 -4%
’04 Yankees 101.2 -0.1 -73.4 144.0 61.7 233.4 -5%
’13 Cardinals 30.8 -0.9 -42 123.2 29.5 140.6 -10%
’04 Red Sox 115.0 -22.1 -50.9 221.9 43.2 307.1 -10%
’06 Yankees 111.4 8.6 -77.1 151.5 44.0 238.4 -10%
’13 Indians 40.8 7.2 -42.1 129.4 17.1 152.4 -12%
’11 Cardinals 88.7 -5.0 -30.6 102.0 3.1 158.2 -21%
’14 Pirates* 51.4 4.5 -31.5 58.3 8.1 90.8 -21%
’14 Tigers* 70.9 -2.0 -44.8 169.4 4.7 198.2 -21%
’05 Yankees 121.9 -7.2 -143.7 129.5 38.3 138.8 -81%

OK, I know what you’re all thinking. We need to have a talk about the 2007 Diamondbacks. If you want to keep reading about the Royals, you can skip this intermission.

* * * INTERMISSION * * *

How the hell did the 2007 Diamondbacks make the playoffs?! I ran these numbers over three times to make sure they were accurate because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It almost made me not want to write this post anymore. This is a team that was 29th in position player WAR and 13th in pitching WAR, yet they still made the playoffs. I thought maybe the NL West was just exceptionally weak that season and they snuck in, but nope! San Diego and Colorado each won 89 games and had a play-in game to decide who went to the Wild Card. The D-backs took the division by half a game with a 90-72 record.

Their run differential was -20. Their best regular hitter, by wRC+, was Conor Jackson. Micah Owings — when he was still a starting pitcher — was fourth on the team in oWAR. After Brandon Webb, their best starting pitcher was Doug Davis. THIS WAS A 90-WIN PLAYOFF TEAM. What the hell, man. If anyone has any insight on how this could have possibly happened, please leave it in the comments, because I have no idea. I guess the real question is “Will a Team Like the ’07 D-backs Ever Make the Playoffs Again,” to which the answer would almost certainly be no. But this is about the Royals, so let’s get back to them.

* * * END OF INTERMISSION * * *

So, the Royals aren’t quite in a league of their own, but they’re close. Since 2003, there have been 102 playoff teams. Only nine of them have had over 50% of their team value come from baserunning, defense, and the bullpen. Only five have been more reliant on the little things than this year’s Royals.

Fittingly, the “little things” teams in the top half of the table are a hodgepodge of teams that only occasionally find themselves in the playoffs – the D-backs, Cubs, Royals, Mets, Reds and Padres. The bottom half are mostly powerhouses whom we’ve grown accustomed to seeing slug and pitch their way deep into the postseason – three different Yankees teams, the Red Sox and the Cardinals. The question that Royals fans likely want to know is: How have the most extreme sides of this coin fared in the playoffs?

Obviously, three of the teams in the above table are from this year and haven’t yet played a postseason game. In addition, two of them (last year’s Indians and the 2012 Braves) only played one Wild Card play-in game before being eliminated. To beef up the sample a bit, I grabbed the top 15 teams from either end of the spectrum who played at least one full series. The results are as follows:

Little things: 54-53, 6/15 LCS appearances, four WS appearances, two WS wins

Sluggers: 74-73, 9/15 LCS appearances, four WS appearances, two WS wins

The teams that have relied more on their lineup and rotation have gone deeper into the postseason and thus won more games, yet the two pools come away with the same amount of World Series appearances and victories. These are just two 15-team samples, so there can’t be too strong of a conclusion drawn from this, but it appears that while more traditionally-constructed teams have an advantage, it’s still pretty random as to who might go all the way.

The Royals will still likely have to survive a sudden death Wild Card play-in game to make the extended postseason, but either way, they’re a team unlike most others in recent history to play postseason baseball. They don’t hit and their starting pitching is good more than it is great, but they run, defend and relieve well enough to make up for their deficiencies. In a way, it’s fitting that they’ve gotten to the playoffs through such unconventional methods, seeing as it took them 30 years to get there. While recent history hasn’t been as kind to teams built like the Royals as it has been to more traditionally-built teams, what matters is that the Royals are there. And if the 2008 Phillies and 2010 Giants are any indication, teams built on the little things still have a shot.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Matthew
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Matthew

Small correction: it should be Kelvin Herrera, not Escobar.

Yordano Ventura
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Yordano Ventura

If Kelvim Escobar is somehow the most valuable seventh inning guy, then I agree with you that I have no idea what it means.